At long last, Lifetime has discovered what’s been missing from TV: Theresa Randle. She only has a few minutes in the premiere episode of State of Mind, which airs 15 July. But those few minutes are, to borrow from Spencer Tracy, “cherce.” As “best friend” and suitemate for Ann (Lili Taylor, equally excellent), Randle’s Dr. Cordelia Banks is at once astute and outspoken, entertaining and illuminating. We love her.
Cordelia makes her first appearance inside Ann’s mind: the series’ first scene occurs in the office suite kitchen. Green slime slides from atop the refrigerator, dry autumn leaves flitting from the ceiling. “This is so pleasant, having breakfast like this,” says Cordelia. When Ann wonders where her husband might be, Cordelia laughs: “You don’t have a husband. You don’t even have plants.” Ann looks around her at her other officemates. “Why slime? Why would you tell me that I’m not married?” It turns out that Ann is married, but not very. Within minutes she finds Phil (Chris Diamantopoulos) “banging Donna Rodinsky [Bridget White]” in his office, down the hall from her own. First, Ann tells off Phil (“I wish you had said, ‘Honey, what I need is a manipulative, bleached blond couples therapist who fills her own emotional vacuum by preying on the needs of unhappy, insecure, and clueless men, a woman who cannot spell, let alone grasp, “psychotherapy”’”). A few scenes later, she goes to Cordelia’s office, looking for righteous advice. Cordelia delivers: “I don’t know Phil that well, but I do know the species, and there’s not a man on earth, straight, gay, or quadriplegic, about whom I’d say, ‘Oh honey, he’d never cheat on you.’”
Such smart-ass, angry girls’ solidarity characterizes State of Mind, which follows Lifetime’s other new girl-in-crisis show on Sundays, Side Order of Life. This one is set in Los Angeles, where Jenny (Marisa Coughlan) works as a photographer for In Person magazine, which has just published its “Hottest Guy on the Planet” issue. She’s thinking there’s more in store for her than illustrating articles by arrogant male writers and, more significantly, her upcoming marriage to Ian (Jason Priestley). The latter takes up Jenny’s series-opening fantasy, as she walks down the aisle to discover that she’s wearing only her underwear and wakes in a panic, Ian sleeping soundly beside her. The difference between this vision and the one that starts State of Mind suggests a fundamental difference between the shows: Ann’s mind is dark and acute, Jenny’s is a little mundane.
A family therapist in New Haven, Ann’s first few sessions following Phil’s betrayal are filled with complaints by a couple on the verge of divorce. Initially, Ann sits quietly, hearing out the banal grumblings of John (Robert Cicchini) and Louise (Romy Rosemont): she won’t have sex with him, he doesn’t talk to her. Ann imagines a possible ending to the marriage (“And that’s why I killed her!” confesses John, as Ann watches the murder take place in front of her). Her consistently nasty visions recall those of her most obvious inspiration, the dreaded Ally McBeal, as does her array of coworkers and friends, including children’s therapist James (Derek Riddell) and a newly credentialed lawyer named Barry White (Devon Gummersall) (This joke wears out on its first utterance.) Thankfully, Barry early on complicates his ostensibly abject “niceness”: “I don’t have a choice: my father killed people for a living and my mother knew about it and bought a new mink every year. I am deeply, even pathologically committed to being good and nice.” And now you want to know more.
True, too much of the premiere is given over to assorted friends and acquaintances telling Ann, “You look terrible,” and it’s not precisely heartening that Cordelia appears to be involved with the decidedly self-impressed pharmacologist Taj (Mido Hamada). And James has his own too neatly resolved subplot concerning a Russian boy whose US foster parents are having second thoughts (he tells them off resoundingly when they lament that the child is not “fitting in”: “In what way did you think a boy who’d been beaten and terrorized, who barely speaks English, and who probably let himself be sodomized in exchange for a warm pair of socks and thought himself lucky” would fit in?). Before the resolution, James is allowed a more ethically and politically complicated protest, wherein he notes the contradiction now inherent in his profession: if he looks like he “likes” children, he is suspected—by police, coworkers, and parents.
Still, Ann and Cordelia appear perfectly matched, as do Taylor and Randle. This is more than might be said for Jenny and anyone in Side Order of Life. Her alienation is central to the show’s concept. As she’s worrying over her wedding and whether or not she quite loves Ian “enough,” her maid of honor Vivy (Diana-Maria Riva) announces that her cancer is returned and this time, “It’s in my brain.” That’s not all: she also believes the marriage is a bad idea. “You’re my best friend and I think you’re blowing it,” she says, wearing her godawful pink bridesmaid’s dress in the restaurant where she has a lunch date with Jenny. “It occurs to me that you talk about this wedding the way they do in that song by the anorexic girl, remember the one we learned about in health class in ninth grade, ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’?”
With this, Vivy is instantly compelling, and you wish she was the series’ focus. “And the sad thing is,” she continues, as Jenny watches, her eyes wide. “I’m telling you this because I’m dying, not because I’m living.” The series proceeds to follow Jenny’s remarkably bland course of revelation, seeing magical insights in her photographs, learning about “self-worth” from a photo subject who has three husbands, and spending a moment with the action-stopping Clarence (Roscoe Lee Brown, to whom the episode is dedicated, as he died shortly after the shoot), reminiscing about his dead wife and remembering himself in his most hopeful moment of life.
It’s very nice for Jenny that she learns so much about her own desires and potentials. But by the time Vivy is stuck in a final toasting and speechifying scene extolling the beauty of her dear friends, amid soft dissolves and plinky piano music, you’re wishing she’d move over to State of Mind and hook up with Ann and Cordelia.
State of Mind
Side Order of Life